In the mid-ninetieth century the word spread around the world that the United States of America was about to begin a project that would alter the future of that new country, North America, and the world beyond. It would be an unparalleled engineering feat that would bring transfiguring prosperity to the Great Plains and to the country as a whole. The plan was to build a transcontinental railroad and the railroad’s promoters heralded it as the agent that could bring settlement to the West, much needed raw products to the Coasts, and wealth to all Americans.
There was a slight economic problem. The promoters either did not have or did not want to risk the money to build the railroad. But, they did have a solution: If the taxpayers of the USA would simply give them every other mile square section of land on either side of the entire length of the proposed track for six miles on either side, they could finance the railroad by selling that land to settlers, and in the process, populate the Great Plains with workers who would make the “desert flower.” Of course, the desert was not capable of flowering in the European or Eastern American sense because there was not enough rainfall, but that was a detail that could be worked out later.
There were few detractors at the time for the simple reason that, to be a detractor you needed to have a voice in the course of American History. The people who lived on the Great Plains, the Natives and scattered whites, did not have a voice and were certainly not included in the discussions that took place in smoky boardrooms and congressional offices of the East Coast. The product of those meetings was a scheme to use the psychology of manifest destiny and patriotism to mask perhaps the greatest land grab in history. The scheme of public payment to wealthy industrialist for settling poor, unsuspecting immigrants in a land that could not sustain them was, in fact, a scheme to transfer public wealth into the bank accounts of a few rich men. It was wildly successful. A few wealthy white men got even richer than they had been and the American people have been paying for the tragedy of Great Plains settlement ever since.
Once the railroaders had their tracks laid, the land sold off, and the riches reinvested in other projects around the world, they began to shrink their operations until the settlers they had brought to the the West were stranded. The effect has been that perhaps thousands of communities along the rail route have been depopulating for sixty years, and now stand as deserted as the railroad tracts that spawned them. The taxpayers of America have been subsidizing the desperate struggle to care for these millions of people, and finally to relocate them back to the fertile lands from which they came. With the exception of a few cities along the railroad route, we are almost back to those few voiceless Natives and whites that have been here since before the greed of the railroads stretched its steeling fingers onto the Great Plains. Those folks are left with the aftermath: abandoned buildings, ruined ecosystems, and nightmares of unfulfilled dreams painted in their minds by railroad tycoons. The graveyards are left untended and the sizzle of industry-fueled global warming has settled with more apparent staying power than the immigrants could ever muster.
I got a letter the other day from the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad Corporation telling me that they intend to cross my land with a new, high-speed track that will carry approximately one train every forty-five minutes from the coal fields in Wyoming to the electrical generating plants in the east. They do not plan to build an overpass over our driveway so we will have to wait and stare at a lowered barrier with blinking lights. The trains will sound their horns and we will hear them from every square inch of the ranch. The trains will shatter the peace and quiet that is the bedrock of this part of the world, it will disrupt wildlife, it will start fires, and it will degrade the lives of every living thing in its path. The railroad wants to talk to me about the land they will take. Eminent Domain applies, but they want to work out an equitable accommodation.
What I’ve found out is that the railroad’s plan to cross my land, and a lot of other people’s land, is not a sure thing. It seems that the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad Corporation is a little short of cash and so has applied for a 2.5 Billion dollar loan from the Federal Railroad Administration. There are some who say they can’t, and perhaps do not even intend to, pay it back. The railroad men are not sure they will get that taxpayer’s money, but if they do, they plan to carry millions and millions of tons of coal, the very worst agent of global warming that is already crippling the Great Plains, through my home. The coal will travel at breakneck speed, screaming the arrogance of the railroad owners every forty-five minutes, day and night, everyday of the year, until they find a better investment.